Professor Hoosen Mahomed "Jerry" Coovadia was born in Durban, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal - KZN) on 2 August 1940. His grandparents had come to South Africa around the 1880’s. They were part of the second wave of emigrants from India to South Africa. His grandfather had owned property, in a rural area in Gujerat State, on the north West Coast of India. His mother was also from a well-off Indian merchant family who lived near the area in which his father grew up. His grandmother was divorced from his grandfather very early on. His grandfather, an authoritarian businessman, raised his daughter by himself. She was his only daughter and he took her around wherever he went, and together they travelled to Europe, a rare event in those days. According to Coovadia, his mother, an avid reader, had a great influence on him.
For most of his young life, Coovadia lived in Wills Road, part of the Warwick triangle, near the Indian market in Durban. His father manufactured clothes and had a wholesale business in Pine Street, Durban. His mother and father married when they were teenagers. The couple did not have a child for many years. As a result, his grandfather insisted that Coovadia’s father take a second wife. Despite the protestations of his mother and her family, he remarried. Coovadia’s stepmother had a child, and soon after his mother had him. He grew up in a household with two mothers and four stepsiblings and his own three siblings. The young Coovadia attended St. Anthony’s, a Catholic school in Durban. He attended Bible classes and grew up learning the Bible as well as the Koran. He completed standard six and then went on to complete his high school education at Sastri College.
At Sastri College, Coovadia's interest in the English language grew. Whilst at high school, he frequented the Brook Street library. His uncle was the first librarian there. After matric, he attended Medical School, at the University of Natal. The university had started this medical school mainly for Africans but as there were not enough African applicants in the first year, they took in Indians and Coloureds too. At the time, the University of Natal was racist in the extreme - they had separate buildings for White and Black students. The medical school for Black Students was situated at an army barracks next to the Wentworth Oil Refinery. It was not conducive to learning. Coovadia did not stay there for long and decided to continue studying medicine in Bombay, India.
It was quite a culture shock coming from South Africa. He had to enrol for a two-year science course and then had to compete with other students to enter medical school. Fortunately, the Government of India had reserved some seats for South Africans of Indian origin and had scholarships for Africans. Coovadia was admitted to Grant Medical College at the University of Bombay. The British had established this College. At College, he became politically conscious. The Communist Party of India had a major influence in their lives and it was the period just after Gandhi and the great Indian Congress leaders like Krishna Menon, Nehru and others. Yusuf Dadoo also met and addressed these students. They formed an overtly political body called the South African Students Association. They would invite Indian politicians to speak about independence and invite the African National Congress (ANC) to address them.
Coovadia obtained an M.B, B.S degree in 1965 and moved back to South Africa to work at the King Edward Hospital in Durban. At the time, the hospital hierarchy was entirely White. He specialised in paediatrics at the University of Natal and became a Fellow of the College of Paediatricians of the College of Medicine of South Africa in 1971. He then went to the United Kingdom and in 1974 he obtained his MSc in Immunology from the University of Birmingham. Returning to South Africa after his studies in the UK, he rejoined the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Natal and began to work on the immunology of measles in children. This research led to the award of an MD in 1978, the year in which he was appointed Principal Paediatrician and Senior Lecturer.
In 1982 he was appointed Associate Professor and in 1986 Ad Hominem Professor. He has made a substantial contribution to paediatric diseases, including the definitive work on nephrosis in South African Black children, malnutrition and immunity, and measles; particularly the effect of a Vitamin A supplement on children with measles and other infections. In 1990, he became Professor and Head of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Natal, until the end of 2000. During that time, he created a strong and vibrant department held in high regard for its teaching, clinical excellence and research. After retiring from this position, Professor Coovadia was appointed the Victor Daitz Chair in HIV/AIDS Research, and Director of Biomedical Science at the Centre for HIV/AIDS Networking (HIVAN) at the Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of Natal. He is the scientific director at the Doris Duke Medical Research Institute at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine at the University of KwaZulu Natal.
In the seventies, Mewa Ramgobin and others revived the Natal Indian Congress (NIC). Coovadia joined the Overport branch of the NIC. He was drawn into speaking at NIC meetings and then into the leadership of the Natal Indian Congress. He was subsequently elected vice president. Coovadia credits his colleagues in the Natal Indian Congress and the United Democratic Front (UDF) as well as the former banned South African Communist Party (SACP) member, Roley Arenstein, for being hugely influential in his political life. He was a prominent member of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was on the Executive of NAMDA (the National Medical and Dental Association), which was set up by progressive doctors after the revelations of complicity by doctors in the security police torture and subsequent death of Steve Biko.
Like most political activists, the police harassed him. The security police placed limpet mines at his home in Overport. His wife, son and daughter were at home at the time. Fortunately, they were not injured when the house was bombed as they lived at the back of the house and the bombs were placed at the front of the house. It was at the time when his friends, political activists, Griffiths Mxenge and his wife, Victoria Mxenge, were murdered. Jerry was in the UK attending a nutrition conference. All his friends back home were being arrested and the police were looking for him. It was a very traumatic period for him, so he decided to remain in London for a few months. Whilst in the United Kingdom, he met Thabo Mbeki, Essop Pahad and Aziz Pahad, Oliver Tambo, Manto Tshabalala, Dr Nkosazana Zuma and other African National Congress (ANC) members. By this time, the UDF was well established. Back in South Africa, he worked closely with activists such as Archie Gumede Mosiua Lekota and many other activists. In the 1980s, he was part of a delegation to meet the ANC in Lusaka before the organization was unbanned. He took part in the preliminary discussions and negotiations at Congress for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA).
In the post-CODESA period when ANC branches were being formed Jerrry’s career took a different trajectory. He left politics, more or less altogether, and he went back to medicine where he concentrated on the work that he had neglected, mostly research. He contributed wherever he was asked to by the ANC, for example, when Nkosazana Zuma,(now Minister of Home Affairs) was reformulating the National Health Policy, she created nine different groups or committees to look at different aspects of the new health system. Coovadia was the chairperson of the Maternal and Child Health Committee formulating a new policy on the mothers and children for a democratic South Africa. He was invited to be a member of a key commission to look at problems at the University of Durban-Westville (now a part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal – UKZN). Linda Zama, Advocate Gouchi and Coovadia were part of the Gouchi Commission that the President appointed. There were numerous other similar committees that he participated in.
Coovadia chaired the Expert International Commission convened by the UN/AIDS and the International Aids Society. He also sits on a scientific advisory committee for Botswana dealing with the AIDS epidemic. One of the worst aspects of the past few years, according to Coovadia, is the fact that he had to oppose President Thabo Mbeki over the AIDS issue. He found that what the President and a small group of people around him were saying about HIV and AIDS was completely wrong, which flew in the face of science that he had to weigh his responsibilities to science, or his loyalty to the country and the President. For him, there was no question that science took precedence over this. It was exceptionally hard for him to oppose the President and his views. In 1999, former President Nelson Mandela honoured him with the Star of South Africa for his contribution to democracy and health. In 2000 he received the International Association of Physicians in AIDS and Care Award, the Heroes in Medicine Award in Toronto, Canada, and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.
About his current research in AIDS, he is internationally recognized for his groundbreaking research in HIV/AIDS transmission from mother to child, especially through breastfeeding and is the Protocol Chair for HIVNET 023 and HPTN 046. Professor Coovadia was appointed by the National Department of Health as Chairperson of the National Advisory Group on the HIV/AIDS and STD Programme from 1995 to 1997, while his international stature in the area of HIV/AIDS led to his election as Chairperson of the XIII International Conference on AIDS, held in Durban in July 2000. This brought him national and international accolades but also resulted in clashes with some prominent government figures who hold unorthodox views on HIV/AIDS. As with his earlier principled and unwavering opposition to apartheid, he has remained openly critical of government policy on HIV/AIDS where he has felt this to be necessary.
He is particularly committed to developing research capacity, having supervised over 40 postgraduate students and taught in the medical, nursing and allied health professions for more than 20 years. His research output is exceptional – he has authored or co-authored more than 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, many of them leading international journals. He is co-editor of the textbook Paediatrics and Child Health, which is widely used by medical students and junior doctors throughout South Africa. Professor Coovadia has received numerous accolades and awards. He was elected a Fellow of the University of Natal in 1995, was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Durban Westville in 1996 and was also recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Witwatersrand. He received a silver medal from the Medical Research Council for excellence in research and he was elected a Foreign Member of the prestigious Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, USA. The Academy of Science of South Africa has acknowledged and rewarded Professor Coovadia who has been responsible for the strong public health research ethos by honouring him with Science-for-Society Gold Medal 2003 award. Professor Coovadia loves reading the poetry by Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley.
He was married to Dr Zubeida Hamed. The couple have a son, Professor Imraan Coovadia, and a daughter, Dr Anushka Coovadia.
Professor Hoosen Mahomed "Jerry" Coovadia passed away on 4 October 2023 at his home in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
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